Thursday, March 2, 2017
Steal Away Home
I think we got all of our February snow in one week, since then it's been melting and evaporating (lots of fog). In that one week we got almost as much snow as we did in February of the Dreadful Winter of 2015. It sure felt like it! But a lot of it is gone now, and there are no big storms forecast for the near future. I bought new skis and snowshoes last week but I may not get to try them out until next winter.
Since the week of blizzards I've only been able to shovel for a few minutes at a time before I start getting chest tightness, but no other strenuous activity affects me that way. I have a theory about that. I think I have a hiatal hernia and the twisting motion of shovelling just corkscrews my stomach up through my diaphragm causing the hernia to get worse. So right now I am concentrating on deep breathing from the abdomen to strengthen my diaphragm and a form of self-massage to help push my stomach back down where it belongs in order to relieve the hiatal hernia.
A couple of days ago I went to an author reading associated with Black History Month here. The book was Steal Away Home and the author Karolyn Smardz Frost. It was so much better than I expected! Quite an amazing experience in fact!
First of all, the author was introduced by Lynn Jones, a prominent black Nova Scotian activist, an amazing person herself. I'd never heard of her before (I am woefully ignorant of such things), but she radiated joyful wisdom and loving attention, her critical message couched in gentle but direct terms. She started by saying that in her culture it was appropriate to ask permission of the Elders present before speaking, so she was going to do that first thing. She said you are an Elder if you think you are and then asked permission to speak. She got a firm and loud "Yes!" Then she spoke about how her people followed an arduous journey seeking freedom, and that in coming to what would soon become Canada they brought a huge contribution to Canadian life that deserved honour and recognition. She believed that Karolyn Smardz Frost's book gave honour and recognition to that contribution and deserved to be widely distributed and read. She then lead us in singing the traditional spiritual "Steal Away Home" for which the book was titled.
Karolyn (I'm going to refer to her by her first name because it's simpler) then told us about the subject of her book, Cecelia Reynolds. She did a little bit of reading but mostly she told us the story. Clearly she loved her subject and was very excited to tell us about Cecelia. Her love and excitement was contagious, I don't think anyone left that event unaffected.
Cecelia was a 15 year old slave who left Kentucky to journey to Toronto in search of freedom. She was aided in her journey by a very sophisticated system known as the Underground Railroad. Like many former slaves who successfully journeyed to freedom she then spent a good deal of her life aiding others to make the same journey. Karolyn is an archaeologist who was involved in the excavation of the first Underground Railroad station in Canada, in downtown Toronto. It was the home of one of the men who helped Cecelia and who she eventually married. He was heavily involved in helping other slaves on their journeys to freedom. At one point he even travelled to Australia to participate in the 1852 gold rush there to make money to pay for the release of slaves in the United States.
There were several things I was struck by that evening. One was Lynn Jones' reference to her people as freedom seekers. They weren't escaping, they weren't runaway slaves, they were freedom seekers: heroes. A twist in one's way of thinking about what was happening there. Another was the sophistication of the Underground Railroad. I rather had the impression that this was somehow the work of idealistic do-gooder whites but it wasn't. It was a widespread movement of both free and enslaved African people who worked behind the scenes to help any freedom seekers find their way. While slave owners permitted some slaves to learn to read, allowing them to learn to write was strictly forbidden for fear that slaves would use that knowledge to escape.
The first thing Cecelia did after attaining her own freedom was to learn to write (she could already read). She used that skill to write to her former owner to negotiate the release of her mother and brother. There was an extensive written exchange between them, a few of those letters still survive and are probably the only letters extant between an owner and a former slave. In any case the letters were couched in affectionate terms but the owner insisted on an exorbitant price for the release of Cecelia's remaining family (her father had been literally "sold down the river" as retaliation for her escape).
I also learned a lot about black history both in Canada and in the United States. It's not the same as what is taught in schools, or at least what was taught when I was in school. The evening was definitely an eye opener. History is in the eye of the beholder, depending on who is telling it the story can be quite different.